Is there anything more romantic than the image of a mother holding her babe in her arms and crooning a lullaby? I’m sure to most of us the idea conjures up images of times long since gone by — lovely scenes of women sitting by a flickering fire with her baby at her feet in its cradle as she gently sings it off to sleep. The idea that a woman nowadays would have the time to sing, or even know, cradle songs is seems impossible. In our highly sophisticated and fast-speeding world it’s more likely mothers would have a recorder programmed to play soothing music to help baby nod off then have time in her day to sit with the child and sing.
This isn’t a criticism of anything; it’s just a fact of life. Anyway, lullabies weren’t necessarily the sentimental thing we think they were. The image projected above is a highly romanticized version of reality, probably. Sure, mothers in the past have sung their babies to sleep, but the songs haven’t all been about passing maternal love through music or attempts to soothe children to sleep. In some traditions cradle songs were the beginnings of a child’s education. It was with them they would begin the process of learning communication as these were the first words they would hear. The songs would also mark the start of their initiation into the culture of their people and the subject matter would cover everything from simple morality to basic awareness.
In our selfish world we see lullabies as a means for a woman to build a one-on-one connection to her child. While that is all very well and good, it also means the child’s first impressions of life are that it is the center of the universe, and that universe revolves around one figure only. It may seem inconsequential to some of you how or what is sung to a child in a cradle, but if their earliest impressions are that the world exists to gratify them — to say nothing about what their responsibilities to the world will be — what kind of person do you imagine them growing up to become?
On her newest release, From Night To The Edge Of Day (Six Degrees Records), Azim Ali has set down versions of the cradle songs she sang for her son. In exile from her Iranian homeland she wanted to ensure he was steeped in the culture of her people and their religion. So she sang him a mixture of traditional lullabies and adapted songs that would not only teach him about who he was, but also his place in their world. Not being blind to the schisms that have set Muslim against Muslim over the years she chose to sing more than just songs from her Persian heritage, and the songs collected on the disc have been deliberately chosen to reflect the ethnic diversity within Islam.
Unlike in the world at large this means that Kurdish songs rest peacefully next to those from Turkey and Iraq, Sunni and Shiite stand together and the lesser known people of Azerbaijan are just as important as everyone else. While the songs are sung in the languages appropriate to their country or culture of origin, Ali has provided translations of each song in the CD’s accompanying booklet. While a quick glance might make it appear that the songs are fairly typical protestations of a mother’s lover for a child — the usual make-the-child-the-center-of-the-universe thing — closer attention will reveal there are phrases scattered throughout them to begin opening a child’s eyes to the world around him or herself. “You will not be mine for long,” sings the mother in the traditional Iranian song, “Mehman (The Guest),” recognizing that a child is only temporarily a parent’s possession and he or she should use this time wisely to sleep while they are still sheltered.
Probably the most poignant lyrics of any of these songs are to be found in the one written especially for Ali’s child by Palestinian oud player and singer Naser Musa. “Faith” is a beautiful song of hope for a better world for the child to grow up in. This from the pen of a man who has lived as a refugee for the majority of his life is a small miracle in itself; that it comes from a region where hate is far more common than hope is almost beyond belief. What would the world be like if people everywhere could rise above themselves and their situations to wish for a world where “childhood will be restored to the smiles of youth which were deprived of compassion” for those who are inheriting the earth from us? If parents around the world could find it inside themselves to whisper words of this sort into their child’s ears instead of passing along their own prejudices wouldn’t the chances of peace be greatly improved?
Ali and those accompanying her on this disc have created a lush combination of traditional Arabic music and modern technology. While the club scene has what it calls its trance music, after hearing the arrangements and performances on this disc, you realize it is but a pale facsimile of what can be expressed with the genre. While any of the former I’ve heard seems designed to reduce people to a drone-like status, unthinking and unemotional automatons blissed out on their electronic drug noise, this music enlivens the senses instead of numbing them. Like the Dervishes of old who would use dance and music to obtain a higher state of being that would allow them to open themselves up to the glories of the universe, the music created by Ali and co-producer (and husband) Loga Ramin Torkjan is designed to open the listener up, not close them down.
Of course Ali’s rich and expressive voice is the focal point, but all the instruments are distinguishable within the mix of sounds that makes up each composition. Here trance music does not simply denote a drone of sound lulling listeners into submission; it is instruments working together to form a texture or atmosphere that opens the mind to the emotions and mood of each song. True, the intent of a lullaby is to send an infant safely off into sleep, but while some would employ them simply to that end, these songs also shape the nature of a child’s dreams, allowing him or her to have their first experience — in one way or another — of the world beyond themselves.
Azam Ali’s collection of lullabies gathered from throughout the Islamic world is a reminder that parents everywhere dream of a better world for their children. While the songs point out the differences between our cultures in some ways, the love a parent feels for a child isn’t unique to any one people. What we do with that love and how we express it dictates how our children see the world and what they bring to it. If more parents were willing to offer the kind of messages found on this CD to their children — messages of love, hope and faith — don’t you think they’d have a chance at a better life? Isn’t that worth at least making the effort to ensure the messages we pass on to our children aren’t the same ones we were given?